Why choose asynchronous?

Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 1)

By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, and Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences

Since February 2020, most classes around the globe have moved online. Higher education is preparing for continued online and hybrid models of instruction and learning going forward. With this move, a number of resources to help instructors convert their classes to the digital environment have emerged.

Understandably, many of the initial resources were reactionary, offering guidance on how to quickly move courses online. Fewer addressed deeper course design. So many instructors translated face-to-face course design directly into this online environment, using Zoom to conduct synchronous class sessions. Emerging from this reactionary moment, we want to advocate for examining course design more critically. What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous? Why should instructors choose one or the other?

With a three-part series of posts, we wish to share our multi-year experience working as an academic adviser, a librarian, and an instructor with the Integrated Social Sciences Program (ISS), a fully online undergraduate degree completion program at the University of Washington. Below, we talk about some of the advantages that asynchronous learning can offer to students and faculty. In our next posts, we will cover practices and strategies that we have successfully implemented, and finally we will write some major takeaways from our online program.

Why asynchronous?

An asynchronous course does not require all students to be active in the online environment at the same time. Students are given modules to complete within a certain timeframe, usually a week. As long as assignments are submitted by the deadline, students can complete the work on their own schedules.

Asynchronously run courses require a slight redefinition of the student and instructor roles in a course. A well-designed asynchronous online course requires a significant time investment on both the part of the student and the instructor. The instructor creates and facilitates the learning experience and environment, which the student then navigates. As a result, students need a higher level of self-direction than in traditional courses, necessitating a higher level of collaboration with faculty as well as programmatic staff like academic advisers and librarians.

Our online classes are designed with a student-centered approach. Rather than use a “sage on the stage” model, we have found that students are more engaged when they are able to explore small chunks of material in different formats (video presentations, podcasts, slides, readings, exploration of websites and other sources). While students may be assigned short video lectures, much of their learning happens when they engage in their readings and assignments. Assignments are designed to be interactive: students tie in their own experiential knowledge with course content, and receive personal feedback on them, either by the instructor or by their peers. Many of our core assignments build on each other, creating a dialogue between the students and the instructor.

Equity and access

Flexible course participation is a key component of asynchronous online classes. The ISS program reaches a student population facing many institutional and interpersonal barriers to higher education. Approximately 70% of our students work full-time, with the rest mostly working part-time. Another 30-40% have dependent care responsibilities. Although many of our students are Washington state residents, we serve students across the country and living abroad. Some of our students have learning or other disabilities, or health issues that make it challenging to attend traditional classes.

Our goal to expand access to a quality education is what motivated us to structure our program around asynchronously-delivered courses. Asynchronous classes can accommodate working students with varied shift schedules, students with family responsibilities, and those in different time zones. Students benefit from being able to fit their learning around their already busy schedules. In these times of pandemic, more students might be out of the state or out of the country, or maybe confronted with family or work responsibilities. This flexibility also extends to the instructor—who can be active in the course at times that work best with other commitments they might have (research, field work, family, etc.).

There are additional kinds of accessibility that are expanded by asynchronous design. Recorded video lectures or narrated presentations can improve the learning experience for many students. Videos and narrated presentations should always be captioned and transcribed, serving students who are hearing impaired or who are multilingual. Students appreciate the ability to pause the lecture to take notes or review challenging concepts. Lectures broken into smaller segments can support the many learners who find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. Besides video lectures, asynchronous discussion offers students nervous about participating in classroom discussions or have different cognitive strengths more time to organize their thoughts and participate.

A student’s ability to access a reliable computer and internet service is an important concern with online education. Students may not have a reliable internet connection available to them at all times, or they may be at home where there are multiple family members and only one computer. Though an asynchronously taught course does not completely mitigate this issue on its own, being able to download materials—including transcripts of lectures—and work offline at a time of their choice—including assignments—can reduce some of the pressures put on students.

Learning preferences

Asynchronous courses provide students with opportunities to make the learning environment more accessible based on their individual experiences with attention and learning preferences.

  • Some people learn better in the morning; others are night owls. The ability to choose the best moment of the day to engage with the material can be really helpful to them. Other students may need to pause and re-listen to explanations more than once.To be sure, it is easier to tune out a lecture online than in person, even more so when there is not a specific time that the class meets. Other commitments feel more real, there is not enough time to participate, and the shadow of procrastination is often peeking from behind the corner. Yet these risks don’t outweigh the benefits of asynchronous learning.
  • Students in our asynchronous courses are asked to demonstrate their understanding of the material through regular interaction in discussion forums and assignments. When reflective activities are designed intentionally, asynchronous learning provides more space and time for students to think about their learning.
  • This pandemic has caused many people to feel fatigued from Zoom. Asynchronous classes, requiring students to engage in a variety of activities and only a few pre-recorded short videos, can offer a valid alternative to Zoom meetings.

Looking for more information about asynchronous course design?
See the other posts in this series:

About the authors

Aimee Kelly is the Assistant Director of Academic Services for Integrated Social Sciences. In addition to direct student support she is engaged in improving the online educational environment through curricular design and program development. Prior to working with ISS she designed and taught face to face, hybrid, and fully online versions of Geography courses for the Virginia Community College System.

Reed Garber-Pearson is the Integrated Social Sciences & Online Learning Librarian at the University of Washington. They work in instructional design, online program development, and student support. Before becoming a librarian Reed was also an online student.

Sara Vannini is a former Lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communications and former instructor at the Integrated Social Sciences program. She has been teaching core as well as thematic classes for the program from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2020. Sara is now a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK).


Strategies for successful asynchronous courses

Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 2)

By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences

Structured course design

Paradoxically, more flexibility in terms of schedule to learning and instructing translates into more structure in terms of course design and lesson planning. A well-developed asynchronous learning experience usually requires significant work before the quarter begins. It is critical to align the overall course objectives, the individual lesson objectives, and associated course materials and assignments to create a coherent structure. Establishing a “pattern” or a predictable flow of content, assignments, and associated due dates is another crucial component. As a result, the ability to modify the course “on the go” is reduced, though not completely removed.

Without transparent course objectives and a predictable flow of materials students can struggle identifying what they need to be doing and when, and as a result, may miss assignments or find it difficult to make sense of the course content. Predictable due dates can help students who need to coordinate their use of a shared device with others. It is critical that asynchronous courses be organized and that the expectations for success are clearly communicated.

In order to maximize accessibility and reduce the need for retroactive edits to the online course, universal design principles should also guide development.

Collaborative design

Asynchronous course design requires an entirely different way of thinking and approach than that of synchronous in-person courses (though we have found it helpful to apply lessons learned from in-person courses). We have found it helpful to do this type of course design through active collaboration with program colleagues. One of the hallmarks of the Integrated Social Sciences (ISS) program is our truly integrated approach to design, instruction, and student support. Instructors, academic advisers and the librarian together design core courses and even teach portions of the courses. For example, the advisers comment on and grade an assignment where students create their own learning plan. In the second week of their first quarter the librarian facilitates and grades a module on information literacy. Students see that we are collaborative and integrated and know that there are always multiple pathways for support.

It can be difficult for students to find the help they need in an online environment; integrating advising and librarian support makes these resources more visible and it helps students have some experience of what “campus life” offers. Staff are additional resources that can help students who are falling behind. Though this type of collaborative course design might be difficult under the present circumstances, it may be useful to look at spaces in your course where you can build in support from or connections to other student services.

Instructor presence and communication

Another important piece of successful asynchronous design has to do more with how the instructor develops their “online presence” when they aren’t meeting with students. While students navigate the asynchronous course independently, students should still feel as though their instructor is guiding them through the course. Otherwise, students have a tendency to feel as though they are teaching themselves. The instructor presence in an asynchronous course can be established through communication expectations, announcements, and robust assignment feedback.

  • Students need to know at the start of the quarter how and when they will receive communication from their instructor. Basic information to share with students includes your preferred mode of communication for questions about the course, your estimated response time for responding to questions, and when you plan to respond. Without clear expectations for communication and response time, students may expect the instructor to respond 24/7, or if they don’t hear back might assume the instructor is not present in the class. Setting these expectations at the start of the course can prevent a lot of student frustration and by extension, save the instructor stress and time.
  • Announcements, whether delivered through the learning management system or via email, work well if they are sent on a regular schedule to provide guidance for the week’s lesson. These are also a great opportunity to integrate current events or tips for completing the assignments. We find that these create a space for instructors to weave in a bit of their individual personality and humanity. Announcements are also a space to address common challenges with assignments. It’s helpful to think about these as opportunities to keep students on track and personalize tips and reminders based on the overall progress of the class.
  • Instructors need to provide robust and timely feedback in the discussion forum or on individual assignments in order for students to develop confidence that they are on the right track. This is especially important in courses where assignments scaffold—early, consistent feedback helps students feel prepared to tackle the next assignment. And of course, this feedback is important for steering students on the right track. As with responses to student questions, it is helpful when instructors let students know at the start of the quarter what their goals are for getting assignment feedback.

Social learning and community building

Social learning and community-building is probably the biggest challenge for online learning. As interaction will always be different in the online medium, we cannot expect it to replace face to face classroom experiences. However, if designed carefully, an asynchronous online course can develop community and leverage social learning in valuable ways. The key is to not equate it with that of an in-person class. With asynchronous education we are not trying to replicate a traditional classroom, but building something altogether different that will meet students’ learning needs and break down barriers to learning.

  • An online, asynchronous class can offer the opportunity to create an environment of dialogue, openness, and respect, particularly for students that may find it challenging to speak up in a face to face course. One way to do this is to develop required, graded discussions where everyone must participate. Setting expectations for what safe and authentic communication should look like can encourage students to share very deep questions and thoughts. This can be done by including spaces for introductions in each course and setting discussion norms. The instructor may also model this through their announcements and participation in discussions.
  • Peer to peer learning and relationships can also be encouraged through the inclusion of opportunities for small group work. The design can also develop assignments that ask students to draw from their own “outside the class” experience, which can also foster getting to know and learning from each other. This peer learning model not only encourages students to get to know one another through continual dialogue, but also helps students to use their own experiential knowledge in sharing information.

With their intrinsic differences from face to face classes, participating in asynchronous online classes might even teach students important skills for their everyday interactions. Social connection through digital environments, even before the move to remote work and learning, is increasingly a part of our everyday lives. Many interactions outside of school that already happen in an online environment—whether professional or personal—are also asynchronous (e.g.: work email exchanges). Asynchronous education is, then, an opportunity for students to improve skills that might be valuable in their career and elsewhere in their life.

Technology-enabled technology issues

Finally, it is important to remember that we are talking about courses mediated by technology, and that the technology will inevitably have issues. Technology that does not work in online courses has the potential to completely halt learning. This causes stress for students and instructors.

  • Instructors should specify minimal technical requirements that students have to have at their disposal in order to participate in their courses. Many of the initial resources that were shared at our institution to help instructors quickly move their courses online encouraged designers and faculty to limit the number of new technologies they put in front of their students. This advice is helpful for thinking ahead—limiting the variety of technologies students need to use, and testing the course environment to make sure that resources are linked properly and are accessible will reduce frustration.
  • Instructors should specify how students can resolve technical issues, be it in the form of technical support, a IT helpdesk contact, or alternative ways to complete assignments. To encourage students to reach out the campus support early on—tutoring, writing help, librarians, and IT—we have built in small extra credit assignments that allow course credit to students for making connections and asking questions.

Looking for more information about asynchronous course design?

See the other posts in this series:

About the authors

Aimee Kelly is the Assistant Director of Academic Services for Integrated Social Sciences. In addition to direct student support she is engaged in improving the online educational environment through curricular design and program development. Prior to working with ISS she designed and taught face to face, hybrid, and fully online versions of Geography courses for the Virginia Community College System.

Reed Garber-Pearson is the Integrated Social Sciences & Online Learning Librarian at the University of Washington. They work in instructional design, online program development, and student support. Before becoming a librarian Reed was also an online student.

Sara Vannini is a former Lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communications and former instructor at the Integrated Social Sciences program. She has been teaching core as well as thematic classes for the program from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2020. Sara is now a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK).

Take-away strategies for asynchronous online learning

Reflections on asynchronous online learning (part 3)

By Aimee Kelly, Reed Garber-Pearson, Sara Vannini, UW Integrated Social Sciences

Most of the curriculum design should happen before the course begins

  • The curriculum needs to be designed very carefully, content will need to be clearly structured with overall course goals and weekly lesson objectives
  • Deadlines should follow a published and regular schedule
  • Written instructions need to be explicit
  • Instructions and content need to build on each other gradually
  • The design needs to still allow for a few issues (misunderstandings, technical glitches, etc.) to emerge, and students should not be penalized for them – develop a plan for how you will handle these scenarios
  • Review universal design principles and check out the UW-IT Accessible Technology website for guidance on developing an accessible course

Think about your lessons in terms of a flipped classroom environment

  • You can record lectures, but most of the time a few very short videos (max 10 minutes) are more effective and maximize on students’ attention span
  • Provide readings and other materials to support the lesson objectives
  • Use frequent discussion boards and assignments to check on students’ progress and understanding
  • Find ways to give regular and frequent feedback to students (e.g.: by creating weekly assignments), so they know they are on the right path or they’ll learn how to adjust. This is another good way to keep them on track and to let them feel your presence even if they don’t see you on zoom!

Design a space to foster social learning and community building

  • Give students an opportunity to introduce themselves at the start of the quarter
  • Use graded discussion boards where they have to post and reply to each other
  • Use peer reviews
  • Set up small group discussions
  • Encourage students to bring in examples/observations from “outside class” that engage with the course material

Work on your instructor presence

  • Communicate your preferred mode of communication from students as well as an expectation for your response time
  • Use regular announcements to repeat instructions, keep students on pace, respond to their questions
  • Connect class material to current events, etc.—this will also help students to stay on track
  • Think about how you will help your students get to know you when they can’t meet you in person

Collaborate with your program’s advisers, librarian, and other staff

  • What ways can they support students through your course model?
  • How can you build in your course experiences that remind students of life on campus

References that have guided our work

Conceição, Simone C. O, & Lehman, Rosemary M. (2013). Motivating and retaining online students (1st ed., Jossey-Bass guides to online teaching and learning). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Palloff, R., & Pratt, Keith. (2007). Building online learning communities : Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (Second ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Quality Matters. (n.d.). Rubrics and Standards. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards

Looking for more information about asynchronous course design?

See the other posts in this series:

About the authors

Aimee Kelly is the Assistant Director of Academic Services for Integrated Social Sciences. In addition to direct student support she is engaged in improving the online educational environment through curricular design and program development. Prior to working with ISS she designed and taught face to face, hybrid, and fully online versions of Geography courses for the Virginia Community College System.

Reed Garber-Pearson is the Integrated Social Sciences & Online Learning Librarian at the University of Washington. They work in instructional design, online program development, and student support. Before becoming a librarian Reed was also an online student.

Sara Vannini is a former Lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communications and former instructor at the Integrated Social Sciences program. She has been teaching core as well as thematic classes for the program from Autumn 2016 to Spring 2020. Sara is now a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK).

Teaching physics: Videos instead of midterms

Video problem solutions

By Peter Selkin, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma.

For the past two quarters, I’ve used an approach based on an idea adapted from Andy Rundquist, a physics professor at Hamline University in Minnesota. Instead of a midterm and a final (and in addition to weekly content quizzes), students submit short videos walking the viewer through solutions to physics problems of their choice. Overall, I have been impressed by the solutions students — including those who are struggling in other aspects of the course — submit. Even if the students are getting help from other sources, I see their ability to explain their work on a video as a demonstration of their knowledge.

This approach works best in certain contexts. Most of my teaching is in the introductory physics sequence at UW Tacoma where classes range between 20-40 students. Video demonstrations may not work well for larger classes. The problems require substantial scaffolding for both technical (e.g. posting videos) and pedagogical (e.g. choosing problems) reasons, but that scaffolding is scalable.

Grading is the most time-consuming part of this approach. For that reason, I limit video length to five minutes and cap the number of videos at 10 per student. I have students submit the videos in two sets (five at midterm and the rest at finals), and I watch the videos at 1.5x speed as I grade them. I use a holistic rubric to grade solutions, which also speeds the process. Although grading is time-consuming, it has been rewarding to hear students’ voices on their videos.


For additional information about video problem solutions and other teaching tools Peter Selkin uses, visit his Selkin Lab blog.

Peter Selkin is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Tacoma. As a geophysicist who studies the magnetic properties of earth materials, his scholarship and teaching are at the boundary between geophysics and mineralogy.